The image that will linger from yesterday’s protest by the National Union of Students against the Coalition’s plans to increase tuition fees is not thousands of students marching peacefully through London, but a few hundred vicious hotheads breaking away to try to ransack the Conservative Party’s HQ on Millbank. Aaron Porter, the NUS’s president, rightly described the violence as “despicable”; he knows how utterly counter-productive such anarchic behaviour is for his cause.
Yesterday’s march was also the first real test of the Metropolitan Police’s new strategy for dealing with street protests. After last year’s demonstrations in the capital during the G20, the Met faced widespread – and, we believe, totally misguided – criticism for being heavy-handed. In truth, it dealt firmly and effectively with a serious threat to public order. Yet a critical report by Sir Denis O’Connor, the chief inspector of constabulary, concluded that the police could be seen as having been “aggressive and unfair” during the demonstrations. Yesterday, we saw the fruits of the softly, softly approach proposed by Sir Denis: the besieging of a political party’s headquarters, a baleful first for this country. No doubt the police will now face criticism for getting it wrong once again. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t, they have every reason to feel hard done by.
In reality, it is the politicians who do not emerge with much credit from yesterday’s events – at least, those in the Labour Party. Harriet Harman cynically whipped up the row during Prime Minister’s Questions, as the demonstrators gathered outside – ignoring the fact that it was Labour that introduced tuition fees; that commissioned the review that recommended the new increases; and that now has no policy of any kind on student finance. The cynicism is breathtaking.